A consultation for the ‘Digital India Bill’ was recently held in Bengaluru, marking the first positive step towards public consultancy.
- The Digital India Bill is supposed to replace and supersede the Information Technology Act, 2000.
- The bill seems to be extremely wide in scope, covering areas such as artificial intelligence, ‘Blockchain’, ‘deliberate misinformation’, Metaverse, doxxing, advanced quantum computing, e-commerce entities, AI-based platforms, fact-checking portals, social media companies and their algorithms, catfishing, cyberbullying, identity theft, gaslighting, non-personal data etc.
- The complexity of these issues can only be understood by identifying the impact of the services on spheres such as competition, privacy, public discourse, mental health, and many more.
- Some of them can be potentially addressed through regulatory interventions, but others include deep-seated social problems that need alternative approach.
- Their effects move between physical and digital spaces and must be understood in greater detail before they can be altered by rewriting laws.
Drawbacks in the Proposed Legislation Process
- Identifying gaps and harms: Apart from certain rhetoric, the concerned ministry has failed to provide clear and detailed safety issues and harms we face on the internet.
- They are yet to provide how the current laws are applied to the internet, where they see gaps, and whether these gaps are a function of framing, enforcement, etc.
- Fixing blame: Intermediaries cannot be blamed without comprehensively outlining the existing problems and supporting them with evidence.
- Impact of changes: There is a need to identify benefits that internet services provide, accompanied by, an assessment of how they might be impacted as well as the thought process behind the choices made.
- These are prerequisites for civil society, industry and even the government to know if they are on the right track.
- Opaqueness: The concerned ministry has not answered why public consultation responses of the previous IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 were not made public. It has also ignored public feedback on certain aspects.
- This has raised questions on the claims of a genuinely transparent process.
- Vagueness of consultation process: The civil society is expected to be precise and narrow with their asks and concerns, while the Ministry is vague in terms of its response.
- Independent assessment: The government must encourage the development of institutional capability and independent research to assess the impact of such legislation.
- Accountable process: There is a need to conduct genuine public consultations in good faith, where the executive is open to feedback and course correction. This has to be the basis of such ambitious legislation.
- Trying to solve several problems with one policy, apart from the need to balance equity, efficiency and effectiveness is a trap that one has to avoid in public policy-making.
- While public consultations are welcome, there are indications from the authorities that contrary views are not welcome.
- A process where citizens do not feel safe while expressing disagreement or conveying critical feedback is sure to fail in terms of outcomes.
- A legislation developed through consultation that is not genuinely open, transparent and conducted in good faith is likely to be deficient in substance, adversely affecting the welfare of the citizens.